Occasionally, we come across a book, article or talk that aligns with our curiosities and helps to answer difficult questions in a timely way for our lives. A book I came across in 2015 answered many of my questions and asked many others. Since then it has continued to guide one aspect of my life: technology in the home and in the classroom.
Thus, I’d like to recommend a book to our families, one whose messages have come to inform my behavior daily as both a parent and a teacher. That book is The Big Disconnect – Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD with Teresa H. Barker. It was released in 2013, years into the existence of the iPhone/iPad, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, photo sharing, etc., and it discusses the challenges of parenting (and teaching) in an increasingly digital and electronically “connected” world. More importantly, it encourages readers to take a hard look at the role of technology in the home.
Steiner-Adair moves through age groups, beginning at infancy and continuing to late teens and into adulthood, with this as her major message: There’s a lot we simply don’t know about how tech’s power to distract, gratify, simplify and simulate reality affects our brains now and in the future. The Wall Street Journal called it a “…riveting piece of journalism disguised as a self-help tome,” probably due to the author’s use of scientific research and personal anecdotes gained from her experience as a clinical psychologist and parent.
She believes that social-emotional intelligence is the most important skill set children can develop. The ability to listen deeply, communicate clearly, self-soothe in times of boredom or stress, and the ability to persist in times of difficulty are all learned skills. Most adults today who’ve learned these skills did not do so via text message, by pulling our phones out to scroll Facebook after 30 seconds in line at the bank, or by quickly pressing reset on an gaming app. Yet many of our children learn to do this through the behaviors we adults model every day. Some may not be given the opportunity or support to develop such skills, as smartphones and tablets often replace a multi-sensory 3-D world experience for them, while also distracting their parents, reducing quality time for the family.
Steiner-Adair believes in the power of modern technology and makes a convincing argument that perhaps we don’t yet understand its power when it comes to our behavior and our minds, especially in children. She says, “Technology does not love your children. Tech is a tool. It’s a wonderful tool; it’s a powerful tool that can be used in amazing, beautiful ways. And it can be used in very dangerous ways, but the most important thing is that we do not let any new app or our own distractedness delete age-old truths, …even though the world is changing faster than we can imagine. And that is that children can thrive in schools like this where the teachers work so hard to connect to your kids, and in families like yours where parents do the hard work of protecting the quality of time and family connection it takes to really stay connected to our children in real life.”
Here are some ways reading this book has pushed me to try (emphasis on “try”) to enhance my role as a dad and as a teacher:
  • Keep the phone out of view and out of reach of my kids and students. If I do pick it up, I explain out loud what I’m doing and why. i.e. “I’m texting mama about groceries.”
  • The iPad is off-limits to the kids at home. My girls are pretty young (just over two), so they don’t get to use that yet. It’s amazing and kind of scary how drawn to it they are in the times they have gotten their hands on it.
  • Videos and movies are pre-screened to minimize “rapid cuts.” Live performances of our favorite songs on YouTube is one of my favorite uses of tech in our house. Old episodes of Mr. Rogers use long takes with fewer transitions between scenes.
Now, to put technology to good use! Here is a 10-minute YouTube clip of the author giving some thoughts on tech in the family:
Paul Hanna is the science teacher for New Morning School. He can be reached at paul@newmorningschool.com
“Technology is a tool, and technology does not love your children.”